In January 1964, Ella Fitzgerald toured Japan with the Roy Eldridge Quartet. Norman Granz, no longer owner of Fitzgerald’s label, Verve, yet still her personal manager and professional Svengali, recorded the Tokyo leg. For months afterward, Granz prepared what was to be Ella in Nippon, a follow-up to 1960’s Grammy-winning Ella in Berlin. Why did the album never surface, the master tapes left gathering dust for 47 years?
The answer seems fairly easy to decipher. In July ’64, Granz recorded Fitzgerald, again with the Eldridge quartet, at Juan-les-Pins. The results were stunning and, perhaps of greater commercial importance at the time, the playlist more diverse, incorporating hits of the day like “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “The Girl From Ipanema.” With the market for jazz vocalists fading rapidly as rock’s British Invasion escalated, Granz simply opted for the seemingly stronger Juan-les-Pins sessions. It turns out, though, that the Japanese sessions are equally good.
Always a sage crowd-pleaser, Fitzgerald gives her Tokyo fans precisely what they want, drawing heavily on her landmark Songbook series and such recent albums as Rhythm Is My Business, Ella Sings Broadway and Ella & Basie. (She even sings a chorus of “‘S Wonderful” in Japanese.) She is impeccable throughout-certainly as fine as at Juan-les-Pins and with better overall recording quality. But perhaps this two-disc set’s biggest treat is a foursome of instrumental tracks from Eldridge and his bandmates, including densely satisfying treatments of “‘Round Midnight,” “I Can’t Get Started” and “Undecided,” plus a pulsating six-minute jam session.